African-American business owners find sweet spot with kickboxing business

Richard Tillies and Felicia Gilner have opened 9Round Fitness in Raleigh. (WNCN)

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – Walk into 9Round Fitness in North Raleigh and you better be ready to work hard.

“9Round offers a 30-minute full-body kickboxing workout,” said co-owner Richard Tillies. “There are no class times- a new round starts every 3 minutes.”

On a recent Saturday morning, the gym was packed with everything from soccer moms to fitness buffs to even young boys who came to learn some boxing techniques.

“The response so far has been great,” Tillies said of the business, which has been open about two months. “Although we have been open less than two months we have phenomenal members who have become advocates of the gym and the 9Round experience in their own communities.”

Tillies and partner Felicia Gilner opened the gym in September. Their partnership happened by chance.

“We met while shopping,” Tillies said. “We were both dressed in workout clothing so we struck up a conversation about fitness and technology. We both worked in the field. I invited her to a boxing class at my gym.”.

Like Tillies and Gilner, millions of minorities take on entrepreneurship in search of financial independence and success.

Minority businesses make up almost 15 percent of the 28 million small businesses and employ 5.9 million workers in the United States. Minorities include people in any category other than non-Hispanic white, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Gilner, 40, is one of many African-American women who are thriving as business owners.

The number of companies started by African American women grew nearly 258 percent from 1997 to 2014, according to the Center for American Progress.

The Center said 1.1 million black women owned businesses in 2013.

Tillies, 37, said he and Gilner have similar goals when it comes to business.

“We have a lot in common: we have a passion for fitness and helping others achieve their goals,” Tillies said. “After I decided to pursue the opportunity with 9Round, I invited Felicia to visit an existing location. She enjoyed the concept so much that she agreed to help me open another franchise in the area and serve as the General Manager.”

Tillies also had advice for African Americans who are thinking about opening their own business.

“Preparation, preparation, preparation. Be prepared to work harder than any job that you ever had – your day is no longer 9-to-5,” Tillies siad. “Be prepared to work for free for the foreseeable future. It may become your reality.

“Surround yourself with like minds – iron sharpens iron. Build asupport system that appreciates what you are trying to accomplish. Eliminate distractions (people, places, things) that deter you from your goals. Understand what is most important to you, and add this to that list. Other aspects of your life may suffer or become less prioritized, and you need to make sure you are OK with that.

“Even in 2015, be prepared to be dismissed simply because of who you are or how you look.”

Tillies said his academic, athletic and business background is a recipe for success in this new challenge.

He has a background in martial arts, and was a college professor in Virginia and Pennsylvania. Gilner is an avid runner and cyclist. She worked for years in the technology industry in Research Triangle Park. Both saw kickboxing as a new avenue for cross-training.

The pair said they’ve also gotten a lot of support from the corporate office.

Tillies said he has used a combination of savings and personal investments to fund the venture. He says he’s fortunate to start a business with no debt but now feels the pressure to succeed quickly to help replenish the investment and also turn a profit.

“The build-out process has been the most challenging part so far,” he said. “Turning an empty shell into the foundation for your day-to-day operation is a daunting task. Make sure that you stay intimately involved in the process from start to finish, and make sure no detail is overlooked.

“The second is the marketing and advertising. You cannot operate with an ‘If You Build It, They Will Come’ mindset and fail to properly market the business. You also cannot break the bank trying to reach the masses. There’s a sweet spot, and your job as an entrepreneur is to find it.”

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